One of the Ten Great Buddhist Temples in China's Zen Sect
The Lingyin Monastery ( 靈隱寺, literally "Temple of Soul's Retreat" and also known as ‘the Zen Temple of Cloud Forest’) rests to the north-west of West Lake between two mountains – the ‘Peak Flown from Afar’ and Beigao Mountain. First built in 326AD, Lingyin was among the first Buddhist temples to be constructed in China and today remains to be one of the ten great Zen sect temples.
The Lingyin Monastery was constructed on the innocent suggestion of Master Huili, a West-Indian Buddhist monk who had come to China on missionary work. Drawn in by the location’s tranquillity, he remarked upon it as being a “place where the immortal’s soul could retreat and be at ease”.
During the ‘Five-dynasty’ epoch of later years, Wuyue Kingdom emperor and fervent Buddhist adherent Qian Hong Chu devoted significant resources to maintaining and expanding the monastery. By this point it had become well-known throughout the lower-Yangtze River region. Throughout the period Lingyin continued to grow and was recorded to house 3,000 monks.
Lingyin Monastery’s is also known by the name ‘the Zen Temple of Cloud Forest’. This nickname is rumoured to have been given by Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi on one of his visits from the nation’s capital.
Legend has it that Emperor Kangxi came to Hangzhou in 1689, at which time he paid a visit to Lingyin Temple. That morning, Emperor Kangxi and the then-presiding master monk of Lingyin made the hike to nearby Beigao Peak. On the way, the emperor cast his eyes upon the monastery, which sat shrouded by cloud and forest mist. Later, when the master made a request for the emperor’s royal inscription, emperor Kangxi wrote down the words “Cloud Forest Zen Monastery”.
Another tale goes that, after reaching the mountain’s peak and sinking a few drinks to get himself in the writing mood, the Emperor set calligraphy brush to paper with the intention of simply writing the Monastery’s existing name. However, perhaps because of the alcohol, he wrote the upper-part (雨) of the Chinese character for ‘soul’ (靈) too large, and as a result began to run out of space on the paper. Apparently having no spare paper on hand and unsure at how to go on, his right-hand minister offered the clever suggestion of changing the temple’s name to “Cloud forest Zen, as the character ‘cloud’ (雲) required less brush strokes and therefore less space.
Whatever the case, it seems that locals were already used to the name Lingyin, and so despite the emperor’s efforts the ‘Cloud Forest Zen Monastery’ is still goes by the name Lingyin Monastery.
Over the course of its’ history Lingyin has endured ten instances of destruction and subsequent large-scale restoration – the most recent taking place in 1956 and ’57. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) students from the Zhejiang University gathered to protect the Lingyin Temple from Mao Zedong’s relentless anti-traditional "Red Guards".
In response, the then-Premier Zhou Enlai dispatched a company from the national armed-forces to set up ramparts and deploy machine guns to guard against the Red army. While the effort was largely successful, some precious stone sculptures sustained damage when Red Guards climbed over defensive walls to get in.
Opposite Lingyin’s grand gates stands a screen wall adorned with four Chinese characters which read “On Nirvana’s Doorstep”. Upon passing through the gates, by the mouth of a cave in the base of the Peak Flown from Afar, you come face to face with Ligong Pagoda - the seven-tiered, eight-meter-tall octagonal tomb that enshrines the remains of the great Indian Buddhist missionary and temple founder – Master Huili. Passing on towards Chunsong Pavilion on a stroll along Cold Spring Stream you find Buddhist statues gathered in small grottos. These 345 stone statues were sculpted between the Five dynasties and Yuan dynasty - a period spanning more than 500 years.
The Temple of the Heavenly King is positioned by the front gate of Lingyin. Suspended above the temple’s grand doors is a large inscribed plaque conferred by Qing emperor Kangxi. The plaque reads: “Cloud Forest Zen Monastery”. Inside, a Maitreya Buddhist statue is enshrined at the center of the temple hall. On either side of him are the four Great (and ill-tempered) Heavenly Kings. A 700-year-old relic of the Southern Song Dynasty – a Skanda Sect Buddhist statue holding a vajra-pestle is positioned behind the Maitreya.
Towering three storeys and 33.6 meters tall, with double eaves, Lingyin’s Temple of the Great Buddha commands the area beyond the Temple of the Heavenly King’s rear courtyard. Within sits the 25-meter-high Sakyamuni Buddha statue atop his majestic seat. The present-day camphor wood Sakyamuni was carved and gilded in 1956 in the artistic style of Tang Dynasty sculpture. It is recorded that approximately three kilograms of gold was used to coat the statue. The statue is the largest wooden statue existing in China today. Lining the walls to Sakyamuni Buddha’s left and right stand eighteen vivid and ferocious statues representing the disciples (called ‘arhat’) of the original Buddha. To his rear rises the painted sculptures of the 53 Sudhanas, who stand with the South Sea Kwan-yin at their center. They are further surrounded by 150 historical figures from Buddhist legend.
The Temple of the Medicine Master, Temple of Scriptures and Avatamsake (Hua Yan) Temple all lie on the monastery’s central axis behind the Temple of the Great Buddha. The latter two temples underwent renovation beginning November 2000 and were re-opened to public in October of 2002 during the West Lake Expo - an annual event for Hangzhou city. In terms of status as a holy place, the Avatamsake Temple is highest among all Lingyin temples. It enshrines the three saints of Avatamsake.
West of the Temple of Medicine Master is the Cloud Forest Library, containing thirty-thousand books available to be borrowed by monks, teachers and students of the Hangzhou Buddhist Academy and monastery staff.
Visitors with an abundance of time are also encouraged to pay a visit to the grand Arhat temple, which houses five-hundred unique Arhat statues, each brimming with personality.